At the end of the day, when all was said and done, Joe was basically a bum. The only thing he ever did that was worth a tin of beans was to kill the wrong guy, and getting all remorseful about it, blow the lid off a group of criminals. Until then, they had been so secretive about their existence they made the order of Masons appear to be a bunch of blabbermouths.
He spoke about a secret criminal organization that had existed in America for over seventy years. In major metropolitan areas such as New York, its members had held society ransom as they went about their business of thieving, extorting, union manipulation and murder. Valachi's view was not from the top but was more a worm’s eye view, as he was never involved in the corporate decisions that formed its policy. As a foot soldier in the ranks of organized crime, his job was to turn strategy into practice.
At his defection, Joseph Michael Valachi was up to that point, the most famous public apostate in the criminal underworld of North America, but certainly not the first. Although his revelations provided the public and law enforcement with a wealth of information, it did have its limitations. His minor standing in the pecking order of organized crime precluded him from the macro picture. In many ways, Valachis viewpoint was like asking a gas jockey at a Shell station about the strategy of the board of directors.
A barely literate, low-ranking member of the Mafia whose first-hand experiences were frankly limited to less important events, Valachi was often obviously talking beyond his personal experience. Additionally, Joe was not always the most discerning observer. In his mob world, the telling of false tales between mobsters, and the claims of credit not deserved for important incidents are common. When another criminal bragged to Valachi that he did this or shot so-and-so, Valachi tended to believe it. As a result, some of his information is probably false and some strains credulity.
Basically, Joe was a loner who went his own way whenever he could. Shrewd, cunning and cagey, he never really trusted anyone and this distrust often colored his thinking. He was a rebellious troublemaker with a single-minded determination to show his independence, a cocky and self-assured man who often made his views known. He didn't care what the consequences were.
However, his information helped to focus enforcement agents' investigation of organized crime, and it allowed many of them to test out their hypotheses and assumptions against his disclosures.
Valachi was not the first to disclose the can of worms that most sources refer to as the Mafia.
The official recognition of the existence of this phenomena in America dates back to 1890 when one of the two grand juries in New Orleans that investigated the murder of police chief Peter Hennessey stated: “The range of our research has developed the existence of the secret organization styled Mafia.” This was based on testimony given by Charles Matranga, the boss of the New Orleans brotherhood against his rivals in another mob family.
In 1903, the New York Herald published details of the Black Hand extortionists that were operating in Brooklyn under the control of Annuziato Cappiello, a member of the ‘Ndrangheta sometimes referred to as the Calabrian Mafia.
As early as 1918, a “made” or inducted member of the Mafia had spoken publicly about the organization and its structure when a New York gangster called Tony Notaro gave evidence at the murder trial of another hoodlum called Pelligrino Morano. One year later, J. A. McCann Publications published what was the first book on the Mafia in America: William J. Flynn’s The Barrel Mystery.
In the Justice Department files were the records of Nicolo Culicchia Gentile, also known as Zu Cola. A notorious Mafioso from Siculiana, in Sicily, he had moved to the USA in 1907 when he was a young man of twenty-one, and over the next thirty years had created a niche for himself by traveling across America as a troubleshooter for the mob. He was there during the New York gang wars of 1930-31, and apparently had access to, and the confidence of many of the top players in the formation of the so-called Americanization of the Mafia. It was rumored that he may have been a serving member of the Commission, the arbitration tribunal that was set up to mediate in mob disputes trying to keep things under control when the Ying and Yang of the mob got out of kilter.
He fled America in 1939, under investigation for drug trafficking, and returned to live in Sicily. There, during the Eisenhower Administration, the Justice Department had sent a special investigative unit on organized crime to interview him. He had recounted his memoirs to this team, outlining in detail names and dates, but the information was filed away and never acted upon.
Then there was J. Richard Dixie Davis, the smooth, soft-talking attorney for Arthur Flegenheimer, the German, Jewish-American mobster, better known as Dutch Schultz. Sentenced to prison for a year on a charge of conspiracy to operate the numbers racket, on his release, Davis wrote a series of articles in 1938 for Collier's magazine about the birth of the American Mafia. He also gave dates and named names, but again, no one seemed to be too interested.
In 1940 Abe Reles, a heavy hitter for a group of killers that became known as Murder Inc., turned informant to save his neck when under arrest. He boasted that he would make the Brooklyn District Attorney the biggest man in the country.
In addition to supplying information that helped solve scores of murders, Reles had asserted that in the early 1930s an alliance of underworld bosses resulted in the creation of a nationwide crime syndicate. He named names and gave dates just like Gentile and Davis and his testimony resulted in the successful prosecution of numerous organized crime figures in New York. Yet no law enforcement agency followed through, with the exception of the prosecution of Louis “Lepke” Buchalter, the only gang boss in American history who in 1944 paid the ultimate penalty for his crimes, in the electric chair.
There had been at least three bureaucratic attempts to investigate and attempt to understand what the problem was, starting in 1915 when the Chicago Crime Commission tried to define organized crime. This was followed in 1929 by the Wickersham Commission, which studied the impact of prohibition on criminal activity, but was primarily targeted at Al Capone. In 1950, the Kefauver Committee was formed to investigate organized crime in interstate gambling, and its members found that certain crimes bore the earmark of the Mafia. They exposed a pervasive network of organized criminals operating in alliance with local political figures, but never actually established proof that the Mafia existed or was in any way a nation-linked-wide conspiracy.
The Kefauver Committee Hearings on Organized Crime may have pried open the lid on a real bad can of worms. Also in 1950, the Mayor of New York’s Joint Committee on Port Industry exposed the New York waterfront for the cesspool of lawlessness it had been for decades. Throughout the 1950s, there was also a series of high-profile gangland killings or assassination attempts. In November of 1957, the state police caught the mob well and truly with its pants down at a convention they were holding near Apalachin, in up-state New York. They arrested dozens of men, including many of the family Dons (bosses) from New York and other parts of the United States.
Valachi’s revelations were certainly the biggest single blow against organized crime following the debacle at Apalachin. The really significant danger to the mob was the pattern of connection that Valachis testimony furnished. He made it possible for organized crime investigators to at last realize the dimensions of syndicated crime and to stop seeing it as a series of unconnected incidents. Until Valachi's confessions, the FBI had steadfastly refused to acknowledge the existence of the Mafia. Although police departments and the Federal Bureau of Narcotics operatives had long realized that many underworld figures were often seen together, they had not comprehended that these were formal relationships ranked through a system governed by rules and regulations and biological family ties that at times connected mob families across the continental United States.
Valachi and his testimony changed some of that.
Although just a foot soldier, Valachi had served the mob loyally for over thirty years. Even though in 1959 he was in prison and facing a long sentence for drug trafficking, there was no reason to suppose his fidelity to his crime family would change. That was until they found what was left of Al Agueci in a field in Monroe County.
To most Americans interested in their history, Rochester, New York, is the site of the famous Underground Railway movement that in the decade prior to the Civil War helped more than 70,000 fugitive slaves to freedom in Canada. To those interested in the development of organized crime, this city on Lake Ontario across the waters from Toronto is famous for a murder that occurred there that started a chain of events that led to one of the most famous disclosures about the criminal syndicate, which was referred to until then as the Mafia.
On November 23, 1961, a farmer and his son, out hunting, found a body in a cornfield in Penfield, near Rochester. It was eventually identified as that of Alberto G. Agueci (left), 38, who was also known as the “Baker,” of 21 Armitage Drive in Scarsborough, Canada. His death had not been easy.
While still alive, over thirty pounds of flesh had been cut from his body, his jaw broken, and half his teeth kicked or knocked out. A blowtorch had been applied to his face, blinding him, and he had been tied to a tree with barbed wire before his genitals had been hacked off and stuffed into his mouth. According to the coroner's report, his fatal torture had been spread over a number of days and his body was so badly mutilated it was identifiable only from his fingerprints.
He died the way he did because he had the temerity to threaten Stefano Magaddino, the boss of the Buffalo family of the Mafia.
Along with his brother Vito, Agueci had been arrested on July 20th, 1961, on a narcotics conspiracy charge and imprisoned in New York. Magaddino had allowed the brothers to operate their drug business in his domain for a cut in their profits. In return, he had promised them protection and help if they were ever arrested. However, he reneged on his side of the deal, and Agueci’s wife had to sell their Toronto home to raise the $15,000 bail to free her husband. When he was released, Agueci first went to Toronto, and then on October 8th traveled to Lewiston, New York, where Magaddino lived at 5118 Danna Drive, and apparently threatened him.
A police wiretap which was, unfortunately, inadmissible in court, picked up a conversation between Magaddino and his underboss, Fred Randaccio, discussing how they would eliminate Agueci. His atrocious death was surely aimed at sending a strong warning to the underworld: Kill one but teach one hundred.
Vito Agueci swore to avenge his brother's death but was convicted on his narcotics charge and sent to the federal penitentiary in Atlanta, Georgia. Here he met up with Valachi, who was serving time on a drug trafficking charge. At this time, there were about ninety organized crime figures in Atlanta. The ruler of this group was Vito Genovese, who had been sent there in 1959 to serve a fifteen-year sentence, also for peddling drugs. He was the head of the largest Mafia group in America, which coincidentally was the one to which Valachi belonged. The Federal Government had seemed to be powerful enough to send Vito to prison but then powerless to stop him running it.
Valachi was serving time for two drug offenses, one of which was his involvement in the same crime as Vito Aguecis. This act had apparently been instigated by a senior member of the Genovese crime family, a man called Anthony Strollo, also known as Tony Bender. He was deeply involved in a complex heroin-smuggling scam that had badly backfired.
Federal narcotic agents had seized a shipment of ten kilos of heroin, which was smuggled into America in the luggage of an immigrant family called Palermi. The agents boarded the Italian liner Saturnia when it docked in New York and arrested some of the minor functionaries in the process. Then they tracked the trail back to Vincent Mauro, Frankie Caruso, Sal Maneri, and Valachi, who was working the deal with the Agueci brothers. The trail had stretched back into Italy and the mythical figure of Salvatore Lucania, better known as Lucky Luciano, who was the exiled former boss of the criminal empire now headed by Vito Genovese.
Valachi had been involved in more than just a business level with the Agueci brothers. The late Alfonso had sheltered Valachi when he had fled to Canada in 1959 to avoid prosecution on an earlier drug charge. Vito Agueci asked Joe to make an introduction for him to Genovese, but the crafty Mafia boss avoided him and asked Valachi to walk Agueci around the penitentiary yard so that other members of the mob could easily identify him.
However, Valachi noticed that Agueci was soon in deep discussions with some of these imprisoned senior mob figures, including Mike Coppola of the Genovese family, Johnny DioGuardi, a top man in the Luchese crime group and Joseph (Joe Beck) Di Palermo, one of the consummate narcotics traffickers in the Mafia.
Valachi came to believe that Agueci, concerned because of his involvement with his late brother and the threats he had made against Magaddino (a close friend of Genovese) to revenge his brother’s death, had decided to placate Genovese by offering him information that Valachi had turned stool pigeon and was working for the Bureau of Narcotics.
Slowly, Joe became isolated from the rest of the mobsters in the prison and became aware of their reluctance to talk or socialize with him. One evening while walking in the prison yard, Vito Agueci started yelling at him in front of other mob prisoners, calling him a filthy dog and an informer. By June of 1962, Valachi had survived three attempts on his life. One evening in the cell he shared with Genovese and six other men, after a long rambling discussion, Genovese suddenly kissed Valachi on the cheek. One of Joe’s cellmates, a young hood called Ralph Wagner, remarked that Joe had just received the kiss of death.
On June 16th, Valachi took the desperate step of committing himself into solitary confinement. While there, he made frantic attempts to contact several people, including the Deputy Director of the Bureau of Narcotics. However, it was to no avail.
Released from solitary, Valachi finally reached the breaking point. On the morning of June 22nd, weak from starvation and having eaten nothing for days for fear of being poisoned, his mind and body were cracking under the pressure. He finally broke.
Three men started toward him as though to threaten him. Backing up against a wall, Valachi grabbed a piece of iron pipe lying near construction work in the yard and attacked a man whom he thought was Di Palermo. He had come to hate Joe Beck in particular who was a close friend and ally of Genovese. One day he had offered Valachi a steak sandwich which he was sure was poisoned. Now, terrified and in fear of his life, Valachi beat the man about the head so severely that he died forty-eight hours later of multiple fractures.
Overpowered by the guards and taken to the warden's office, Valachi was mortified to find out that the man he had attacked was not DiPalermo but another prisoner who bore an uncanny physical resemblance. This man, John Joseph Saupp, had no connection with organized crime and in fact was in Atlanta for mail robbery and forgery.
According to an agent of the FBI, who spent more time with Valachi than any other law enforcement officer, this was a turning point. Valachi, he said, had no real remorse for anything he had ever done in his life, except this. Nothing crushed him more than the fact that he got the wrong man...getting a guy who was going to get him was the one satisfaction he would settle for. If he had been successful, he probably never would have talked. Or would he?
(In August 1963, two months before Valachi testified at the congressional hearing, Senior Officer Theodore Leahy, a correction officer at Atlanta Penitentiary informed the FBI that according to Italian-American inmates, Valachi had deliberately killed John Saupp after learning that Saupp was going to spread the word that Valachi, following a visit to New York, was about to become an informant.)
On July 13th, Valachi advised the authorities that he wanted to cooperate with the federal government. On July 17th, he pleaded guilty to murder in the second degree and received a life sentence. That same day he was flown out of Atlanta and settled in the Westchester County Jail, a few miles from New York city. There, he was installed in an isolated ward in the prison hospital under the alias of Joseph DeMarco, with Frank Selvagi of the FBN (Federal Bureau of Narcotics) as his case agent.
His code name was an interesting choice. Joseph DeMarco was a mobster in one of the first New York Italian-American underworld wars and was in fact gunned down in 1916 during a card game in James Street, Manhattan.
By September 8th, Joe was out of the control of the Bureau of Narcotics and was being managed by the FBI, through a crack special agent from their New York office named James P. Flynn.
On that day, the agent demanded from Valachi substantiation about the criminal organization he had worked for. “I want to talk about it by name, rank and serial number,” he said to Joe, “What's the name? Is it Mafia?”
“No,” Valachi said, “it’s not Mafia. That's the expression the outside uses.”
“Is it of Italian origin?” asked Flynn.
“Cosa Nostra,” replied Valachi. “We call it Our Thing.”
The FBI did, in fact, know about this term from their surveillance on mobsters going back to 1961, although in their reports they refer to it as Causa Nostra. One of the reasons Hoover knew all about the Mafia, according to author Peter Lance, was because of Greg Scarpa Sr. A capo in the South Brooklyn crime family run by Joseph Colombo, Scarpa became an official TECI (Top Echelon Criminal Informant,) for the government years before Valachi appeared. Hoover received all the field reports on his activity from day one.
Later, when appearing before the McClellan Committee investigating organized crime, Joe answered a question from Senator Edmund Muskie. When asked if Cosa Nostra was the same as the Mafia, Joe replied, “Senator, as long as I belong, they never express it as Mafia.”
For the next year, Joseph Valachi talked about his thirty years in the mob. He had a photographic memory and was able to remember things in even the most minute detail. He recalled for example, that in 1913 when he was nine years old, he had committed his first criminal act: stealing a crate of soap. He could even remember the brand name, “Fairy Soap.”
Valachi's testimony to law enforcement and subsequently to the McClellan Committee, was primarily intelligence, although, in April 1968, he helped to convict an up-and-coming star in the mob called Carmine Persico, who had been indicted on a $50,000 hijacking case.
According to William Hundley, the man in charge of the Justice Department’s attack on organized crime, “What Valachi did is beyond measure. Before he came along, we had no concrete evidence that anything like this existed...But Valachi named names. He revealed what the structure was and how it operates. In a word, he showed us the face of the enemy.”
And what an enemy it was
Joseph Michael Valachi was born on September 22, 1904, in East Harlem, a ghetto on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. His parents, Marie and Dominick, had emigrated from Naples to settle in New York. Valachi’s family was as poor and wretched as any could have been. He was one of seventeen children, only six of who survived. His kid brother, Johnny, was found dead in the streets, apparently the victim of a hit-and-run accident, although rumor had it that the police had beaten him to death. His oldest brother, Anthony, was committed to the State Hospital for the Criminally Insane at Danemora. Two of his three sisters and his grandmother were also destined to become patients in mental hospitals. His father would die an alcoholic.
He grew up in a world of poverty and despair, living in a succession of miserable cold-water flats-hovels in fact- and often he shared his bedroom with the wood and coal his family scavenged for heating fuel. His schooling was erratic, to say the least, and when he was eleven, he threw a rock at his teacher. For this, he was sent to the New York Catholic Protectory, a reform school for wayward children, in Parkchester, and was there for two years. By the time he was fifteen, he had left school behind and was working with his father at the New York City garbage dump on 107th Street, near the East River.
Three years later, Joe was out of the workforce and had joined up with a gang of teenage toughs and burglars known as the " Minute Men,” because of the speed at which they operated. Over a four-year period, this gang carried out hundreds of thefts. Joe was lucky to avoid the law, but that changed in August 1923. After breaking into a store one night and stealing bolts of cloth, he was chased by the police and shot in the arm. Though he escaped and the wound turned out to be superficial, the car registration had been traced, and he was arrested, tried and convicted.
On October 26th, 1923, he was sent to Ossining Prison, in upper New York state. For a criminal from New York, to be sent up the river meant just that, to go to the most famous prison in America. The local Indians had known it as "stone upon stone,” but to the hoods of the underworld, it was more familiar as Sing Sing. In its early days, the dark, forbidding pile had for some reason been known as Mount Pleasant. Joe was there for nine months.
After his release, he rejoined the neighborhood thieving, but this time he started up a small gang of his own. While breaking into a Bronx warehouse that was used to store fur coats, he and his gang were surprised by a passing police patrolman who managed to get a shot off at them. Valachi was hit again, this time in the head, but after surgery by an underground doctor, he miraculously recovered.
Then Valachi joined up with four other young hoodlums, and they robbed a loft in Upper Manhattan that was crammed with bolts of silk. Valachi’s Packard automobile stalled, and the gang had to escape in another car driven by a young hood called Joseph (Pip the Blind) Gagliano. However, the police traced the abandoned car to Valachi and arrested him. In April 1925, he was sent to Sing Sing again, this time for three years.
Not long after he was admitted, he was attacked and knifed in the back by a man called Pete La Tempa. It was a wound that almost killed him, requiring thirty-eight stitches. His would-be assassin would make the headlines in the years to come because of his involvement in a murder that would help to change the course of organized crime in New York. That killing would also involve a man who would eventually become Valachi's nemesis.
During this third spell in prison, Joe completed his seventh-grade education, learning to read and write. He also made friends with an old-timer (although he was only about 40,) called Alessandro Vollero, one of the more prominent of the Italian gangsters operating in Brooklyn since the turn of the century. A made-man in the Camorra (the Campania-based organized crime group,) he headed a faction of the America version based on and around Navy Street in Brooklyn. He was serving a sentence for the murder in September 1916 of Eugene Ubriaco.
Vollero coached the young Valachi in the complexities of the underworld, explaining in detail the differences between the two main factions that dominated the criminal landscape: those men who originated from Naples and those who came to America from Sicily. Vollero would be released eventually, in 1933, and returned to Italy.
Joe came out of his second term at Sing Sing on June 15th, 1928. His first major job was to sort out the problem that had resulted in the murder attempt on his life by La Tempa. A few months before he went to prison, Joe had been involved in a fracas with a group of Italian mobsters who operated under the control of Ciro Terranova. They claimed he had been the wheelman in a car that had shot up their neighborhood. Valachi had strongly denied this, but Terranova had ordered La Tempa to hit Joe in revenge.
Through the mediation of a man whom Joe had met in Sing Sing, Dominick “The Gap” Petrilli, the dispute was apparently resolved, although Joe never forgave Terranova for the attack. Valachi then returned to the one thing he knew best: burglary. Putting together another small gang, he and his companions were soon grossing about $1500 each week for two or three nights’ work.
One day, “The Gap” introduced Joe to a hoodlum called Girolama Santucci, better known in the underworld as Bobby Doyle. After checking Joe out, Santucci arranged for an introduction between Joe and a man called Tom Gagliano. This would be one of the most important meetings in Valachi’s life. It would take him from a life of petty thieving and two-bit burglaries into the world of organized crime.
Gaetano (Tom) Gagliano was a hefty, tall man, going bald. His legitimate facade was in the construction business, particularly the lathing industry. Behind this front, he was a trusted lieutenant in a gang of mobsters controlled by a man called Gaetano Reina, 40, who was a successful businessman in his own right. Reina controlled most of the ice distribution in New York City a vastly lucrative business in the days before electric refrigeration.
Since the turn of the century, the underworld in New York had undergone many changes. The strong Irish and Jewish mobs had been largely displaced (although some Jewish gangsters would remain powerful forces in the New York crime scene), and their position occupied by Italians who were mainly from Naples and Sicily. The Morello brothers, hailing from Corleone in Sicily, had been a potent influence in the criminal world from the end of the nineteenth century into the new millennium. They, in turn, had been replaced by Ciro Terranova, who was assisted by his deadly brother-in-law, Ignazio Saietta, a ruthless Mafiosi, also known as Lupo or The Wolf. By the end of the 1920s, they had been superseded by another mobster, a short, squat, piggish-looking thug called Giuseppe Masseria. He had been born in Sicily in 1886 and emigrated to New York in 1903 when he was sixteen. By 1929, “Joe the Boss,” as he was also known, was looking to become the dominant figure in the Italian criminal underworld of the biggest city in America.
Masseria had built his power base in Lower Manhattan but was challenged by a newcomer to the New York area, a man called Salvatore Maranzano, who had emigrated to the city in 1925. A cultured, erudite Sicilian, he was apparently a close friend and confidant of Vito Cascio Ferro, allegedly the boss of bosses in the Sicilian Mafia. Maranzano soon established business interests in import-export and real estate, and quickly developed as a major force in the illegal booze business. He joined the Brooklyn-based crime group that became known as the Castellammarese Mafia Family, which at this time was headed by forty-six-year-old Cola Schiro.
As the 1920s drew to a close, it was obvious that trouble was brewing as strongly as all of the illegal booze being generated to quench the thirst of the American public that had been officially denied access to it because of the Prohibition act of 1919.
At the time Valachi met up with Tom Gagliano, there were five separate groups of Italian mobsters operating across New York, made up of men from Sicily and Naples and to a lesser extent, Calabria. He joined the one operated by Reina, who was murdered on February 26, 1930. It is thought by crime historians that this killing heralded the start of what came to be known as the Castellammarese War.
Other sources, author and expert on the period, David Critchley, in particular, assert that the ‘trigger' that set it off, however, was the murder in Detroit of Gaspare Milazzo on May 31st, 1930. The Mafia boss of Motor City, Milazzo was born in Castellammare and had strong links to the Schiro Family in Brooklyn. By the time of his death, Schiro had stepped down as leader of the Brooklyn family and Maranzano had taken over. He used the death of Milazzo as an excuse to declare war on Masseria. It would last until September 1931. When it was over, both Masseria and Maranzano were dead, along with an untold number of casualties, maybe fifty or more. It is hard to be specific, since some gang members may have used the war as an excuse to settle private disputes.
Valachi’s first contract, or hit, happened in November 1930. Along with Santucci, another man called Nick Capuzzi, and an imported gunman from Michigan, Sebastiano Domingo, known to Valachi as “Buster,” Joe was sent on his first important assignment for the group he had joined, which was now allied to the Castellammarese men.
Their target was a top ally of Masseria called Alfredo Manfredi. Valachi rented an apartment in a complex at 760 Pelham Parkway, in the Bronx. The rooms overlooked a courtyard leading to the entrance of Ferrigno's residence. The four men spent weeks scoping out their intended victim. Late in the afternoon of November 5th, Manfredi and another member of Masseria's group, Stefano Ferrigno, were shot dead by three of the four gunmen, who blasted them with shotguns as they walked in the courtyard.
Later in the month, Valachi (above) made his "button" and became an officially inducted member of the criminal group he knew from then on as Cosa Nostra. Along with Nicky Padora and Salvatore Shillitani, two members of his old burglary ring that he had recommended to Gagliano, he was driven from the city about ninety miles north into upstate New York. Taken to a large, white, colonial-style house, in Wappingers Falls, about 30 miles north of West Point, he was ushered into a long room where forty men were gathered around a banquet table. At its head was Maranzano, now the boss of the Castellammarese men.
Joe was introduced to Maranzano as Joe Cago, which thereafter became his nickname in the mob. As a kid, Joe had been an ace scooter builder and this had earned him the sobriquet ‘Cago.’ During his criminal career, those who came to despise Valachi for his treachery were quick to point out that ‘Cago' is also Italian slang for excrement.
Valachi and the tall, distinguished-looking Maranzano shook hands. "Joe, meet Don Salvatore Maranzano," his sponsor said, “he is going to be the boss of all of us through the whole trouble we are having.” This was the first time Joe had ever seen him.
Gee, he recalled, he looked just like a banker. You'd never guess in a million years that he was a racketeer.
Everyone around the table joined hands and Maranzano said, “This represents that you live by the gun and the knife,” pointing to a revolver and a dagger on the table. Valachi then held a piece of paper in his hands, which Maranzano lit with a match, and he was made to repeat after the boss, “This is the way I will burn if I betray the secrets of this Cosa Nostra...The Cosa Nostra comes before everything, our blood family, our religion, our country...to betray the secret of Cosa Nostra means death without a trial.”
The ceremony that Valachi participated in was almost identical to the one described by Palermo Chief of Police Giuseppe Alongi forty-four years earlier in 1886 when he described the initiation rituals of La Mafia from what informers had told him over the years.
Joe was then assigned a gombah, or godfather, to be his mentor and immediate boss. From a random selection around the table, the designated man was said to be Joseph Bonanno, also known as Joe Bananas. Over the next thirty-five years, Bonnano was to be a powerful figure among the Cosa Nostra, heading his own group before being deposed in a bloody power struggle in the 1960s that sent him into exile in Arizona.
After the meeting was over, Valachi returned to New York and moved into an apartment in the Bronx. He was designated as one of the shooters who were to be on call twenty-four hours a day. They waited to respond to messages from the spotters, who were tracking down members of Masseria’s mob. His first forays were noticeable for their ineffectiveness: The targets he and his partners chased after all managed to escape, and although guns were fired, few if any bullets found their targets. That is, until February 3rd, 1931.
On that day, Valachi, the same Buster from Michigan, and two other gunmen were staking out an office at 467 Crescent Avenue, in the Belmont area of the Bronx. They were trying to pin down Joseph Catania, a Masseria lieutenant, and a nephew of Ciro Terranova, the man Valachi hated. Catania had hijacked some of Maranzano’s trucks carrying illegal liquor, and the Castellammarese boss was determined to have him eliminated.
At about 11:30 a.m., Catania and his wife entered the office. A few minutes later, he kissed her goodbye and left. As he walked down the street, Buster was waiting for him. He fired six times. “I don't think I missed him once,” he said later to Joe. “You could see dust coming off his coat when the bullets hit.” Valachi had gone off to organize the getaway car, which was parked around the block, and he and the three gunmen sped away.
According to Valachi, in the weeks following the killing of Catania, the winds of war blew in favor of the Maranzano men. There were many defections to him from the side of Masseria, and in addition, those who stayed with “Joe the Boss” found they were facing an economic crisis. The war was stifling their rackets and hitting them where it hurt most-in their pockets.
Sometime in March or early April, two of Masseria's top aides, Charlie Luciano and Vito Genovese, met up with Maranzano and some of his key men in a meeting held at the Bronx Zoo. In return for their promise to kill “Joe the Boss,” Maranzano agreed to end the war.
At about 3:30 p.m. on April 15th, Giuseppe Masseria was shot dead in a restaurant on Brooklyn’s Coney Island. A few weeks later, Maranzano hosted a meeting attended by hundreds of mobsters in a big hall on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx. There have only been two recorded references to this assembly: one by Valachi and the other by Charlie Luciano in his biography, which was published twelve years after Joe began his testimony. The recollections of the two men more or less follow similar lines: their description of the hall, the way it was decorated and the speech that Maranzano made to the gathering. Speaking in Italian, Maranzano gave a brief background of the war and why it had started, and then he outlined the way things would be in the future.
First of all, Maranzano would be the top boss, calling himself Capo di Tutti Capi. He would share in the wealth of all the families, a term he used to replace the pejorative gang or mob. He then announced who would be the boss of each family:
Luciano would head the group that had been under Masseria; Gagliano would take over the former Reina interests, and Joe Bonanno, Joe Profaci and Vincent Mangano would head the other families based on gangs they had controlled or been part of in the past. Each family boss would be supported by an underboss, and beneath them would be the backbone of the families-the soldiers. These men would be grouped into crews or regimes, each controlled by a lieutenant or caporegime. Everything would be businesslike and there would be strict lines of communication between soldiers and bosses. There would also be rigidly enforced rules. The organization, this Cosa Nostra, would come first above everything, no matter what. Anyone who broke the code of omerta, the vow of silence, would die. No one was to ever strike another member, regardless of provocation. No man could covet another's wife. These were the rules of survival and they served them well for years to come.
After the gathering had dispersed, Joe decided on the spur of a moment to shift his allegiance. He wanted to work under Maranzano as part of his palace guard. He renounced his ties to the Gagliano family and went to be a chauffeur and bodyguard for the man with aspirations to be the most powerful criminal in America.
On the evening of September 9th, he was called over to the Brooklyn home of Maranzano and told that there was to be more conflict ahead. The boss had decided that Luciano and Genovese, along with a group of men allied to them, had to be removed. That way he could consolidate his position as head of all the families and exercise control over the Italian lottery, the unions, bookmaking and bootlegging businesses that formed the backbone of the underworld’s money-making machine.
Maranzano told Joe that he had called a meeting in his office on Park Avenue for the next day with Genovese and Luciano. Unknown to Valachi, his boss had paid a fee of $25,000 to a hot-headed Irishman called Vincent Mad Dog Coll to be at the building to gun down the two men. Unknown to Maranzano, the intended targets had already pre-empted his strike. At 2:50 p.m. that day, four of their killers strolled into the office building and shot and stabbed Maranzano to death.
Blissfully unaware of the drama taking place in midtown Manhattan, Joe (right) had spent the day with his friend, "The Gap," in Brooklyn, entertaining two young ladies. He learned of the killing when he picked up a newspaper in the early hours of September 11th. He was, to say the least, wetting his pants. Petrilli had probably saved Joe's life by making sure he was out of the office that afternoon. Valachi immediately went into hiding, especially afraid when he learned that three of the men whom he had recruited into Maranzano’s palace guard had almost been gunned down while walking along Lexington Avenue.
The Castellammarese War might be over, but for Joseph Valachi the peace had yet to be made
His first place of refuge was with Nicky Podaro, one of the men who had been initiated with him into the Cosa Nostra. He then contacted the son of the late Gaetano Reina, who agreed to hide him in the attic of the family home. Valachi soon afterwards contacted Tommy Luchese, who had become the right hand of Gagliano, and a few days later Joe met the two men. They talked the matter over and suggested that Joe reconsider his move away from their family.
Feeling safer, Joe left Reina’s attic and moved in with his mother and sisters. (His father had died of alcohol poisoning years before.) Matters grew more complicated, however, when Buster turned up and suggested that they should band together with the other gang members under suspicion because of their closeness to the late Maranzano. Then they could fight back. Joe suggested that Buster take a low profile until they could sort things out.
Valachi then linked up with Santucci and his old friend, “The Gap.” They both pressured him to join up with Vito Genovese and the family being run by Charlie Luciano. Poor Joe was in a quandary, to say the least. He had been an inducted member of the mob for less than two years, had gone through the most cataclysmic gang war in history, and was now facing the prospect of changing partners for the third time. After much agonizing, Joe decided to take “The Gap's” advice and join up with Vito Genovese's family, which was controlled by Luciano. His power within the mob was so great that if he approved of Joe, it was highly unlikely anyone would ever question Joe’s loyalty to the cause, despite the fact that he had been close to Maranzano.
At a meeting held in a downtown hotel on West 23rd Street, Joe and three of his associates met up with Genovese, who took them down to Greenwich Village and introduced them to Anthony Strollo, also known as Tony Bender. A close friend of Vito (they had been reciprocal best man at each other's weddings), he became the caporegime to whom Joe would answer. Genovese assured the men that he and Luciano would settle things and they should fear no repercussions from any other family.
Salvatore "Charlie" Luciano would become the most powerful chief that Cosa Nostra would know, holding court over his kingdom from a suite in the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, where he resided as Mr Charles Ross. No significant racket in the city-gambling, numbers, union extortion, loansharking or narcotics-seemed to operate without his finger in the pie.
Although in theory he abolished the position of Capo di Tutti Capi and headed up only his own family, his influence was far-reaching among the criminal underworlds of Italian-American, Jewish and Irish.
Luciano created an addition to the crime family structure a position known as counsellor or consigliere. Initially, this position was created to shield individual soldiers from personal vendettas arising out of the war. It subsequently evolved into a move to pre-empt the problems that would arise as the various Cosa Nostra groups struggled to develop their interests in an environment that Joe Bonanno came to call, “The Volcano.”
As the underworld settled down and began a period of relative peace, Joe began operating his first business, developed through his family membership. Along with Girolamo Santucci, he started up a slot machine business that was soon grossing $2500 a week. Joe also started to date the daughter of the late Tom Reina. When he was hiding out in the attic of the family home, they had become more than just friends. After a complicated and troublesome courtship that required Vito Genovese's intervention to sort out her family's misgivings, Joe married the twenty-two-year-old Carmela Reina who was generally referred to as Mildred, on July 28th, 1932.
Having started his first business venture, and his first and only marriage, it was not long before Joe's new crime family called upon him to handle his first contract to kill.
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